Bookings suggest a season not so gloomy
The Island's summer season may dodge the major effects of the national economic tumble, early numbers indicate.
Long-time summer residents and visitors are reserving moorings, booking ferry trips, and renting accommodations at or near normal levels, reports show.
"My regulars are already in the system, the phone's been ringing a lot the last few days," said Jim Carter, proprietor of the Clarion Hotel in Edgartown, last week. "While the most optimistic predictions have been that the Island will be down five percent this year, I see a good year. Now we may have a shorter season, say eight or nine good weeks instead of 10 weeks, but the chambers of commerce on the Cape believe the second quarter will really open up. I know the Island has more weddings booked than ever in recent years."
File Photo by Susan Safford
Will the day-trippers and short-term vacationers show up? "The pattern in down years is that travel closer to home improves, and that means the Cape and Islands," said Mr. Carter, who added that the depressed construction business on the Island might be a source of apprehension. "It's tough in construction now, but the banks need to make mortgage money available, and we need to loosen up construction regulations to get it going."
Apprehension has dogged business watchers. At the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, executive director Nancy Gardella was anxious for the first two weeks of January. "Then the phones and website hits improved dramatically the day after the inauguration," she said.
"Early last week, I would have said it would be a miracle if we came in flat with last year," Ms. Gardella said. "Not now. Travel experts say travel will be down five or six percent, but only two or three percent in the northeast. The key will be discretionary spending at retail and restaurants. We saw some decline there last year. We had the numbers (of visitors) but not the spending. That's the challenge."
The "regulars" are turning up to renew boat moorings in Edgartown and in Chilmark. Both towns have mailed mooring agreements and returns are normal, harbormaster offices said this week.
At the Steamship Authority, about 15,000 Headstart reservations were booked in the first 13 days of a program that allows Island residents and businesses to pre-book up to five trips for the busy summer seasons.
General manager Wayne Lamson cautioned that the sample size is too small to draw firm conclusions, noting that Headstart reservations to date are off 10 percent from the same period last year and 1,000 ahead of the 2007 period. "I'm cautiously optimistic. I think people will stay closer to home," he said. "We were flat last year, not bad considering the price of fuel went past $4 a gallon on the mainland. What we're seeing now is renters booking prime periods early."
At Hob Knob Inn and its sister realty company, proprietor Maggie White agrees. "I rent two houses across the street from the inn. We've been 80 percent booked since last fall."
Like her colleagues at the Harbor View Hotel and Resort in Edgartown and at the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, Ms. White is working hard to promote and develop new business if there is a visitor shortfall. "I'm focusing on the shoulder season, before and after July and August," she said. "That's where my price promotions are. We need to grow the shoulder season."
In Vineyard Haven, reservations at the Mansion House are off, perhaps as much as 25 percent for some periods. But, Suzie Goldstein, co-owner with her husband, is undeterred. "We are ratcheting up specials, sharpening the pencil. We're lucky to have a restaurant, spa and health club to package up." she said. "People have long said the Island is recession-proof. I'm hoping we're recession-resistant.
"We are selling affordable luxury (at the Mansion House). Sitting on the top floor deck in the cupola with a BYOB is as good as it gets. My job is to let as many people know that as I can and put heads on beds."
At the Harbor View, marketing director Alexandra Zullo is working harder to maintain business, "We're seeing a positive year ahead, but we're not sure. For example, in our group business, bookings are coming much closer to the event. Planners are really rate shopping, and meetings are downsized. A meeting of 100 last year may be 80 this year."
Ms. Zullo added that the cost of travel is benefiting her venue. "With the cost of air travel, there is demand to meet closer to home," she said.
The Harbor View has developed a business promotion, aptly named the Bailout Package, which combines a room, three meals, and refreshments for meeting breaks. "The Bailout Package has stimulated a lot of phone calls," Ms. Zullo said.